Pitkin County to donate water to boost Roaring Fork flows | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County to donate water to boost Roaring Fork flows

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Courtesy Roaring Fork ConservancyThe Roaring Fork River in Aspen nearly ran dry in August 2002. The situation spurred state legislation that allows water rights to be donated in order to augment in-stream flows.

DENVER – Pitkin County will become the first holder of water rights in Colorado to donate water to a river in order to augment in-stream flows.

The nine voting members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a trust agreement with the county Monday in Denver after a four-and-a-half-hour hearing.

“Everybody had smiles on their faces – except the opponents,” said John Ely, county attorney, in a telephone interview at the close of the proceedings.

The CWCB staff, Pitkin County and representatives of Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Water Trust spoke in favor of the trust arrangement, as did the city of Aspen’s water counsel, Ely said.

Opponents included the Basalt Water Conservancy District, Starwood Metropolitan District, Willow-Herrick Ditch Co. and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., he said. All of the opponents expressed concern that the county’s plan to devote some of its water rights to in-stream flows in the Roaring Fork River would impact their own water transactions.

The Basalt Water Conservancy District, for example, essentially capitalizes on lower flows on the Roaring Fork by selling water to users upstream of the Fryingpan River’s confluence with the Roaring Fork, according to Ely. The users take water from the upper Roaring Fork; it is replaced by water the district owns in Ruedi Reservoir, which is released into the Fryingpan and flows into the Roaring Fork at Basalt.

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The trust agreement approved Monday will allow the county to donate 4.2 cubic feet per second of water rights it holds on Maroon Creek to the CWCB, the only the only entity in the state that may hold in-stream flow rights to protect the natural environment. Other water rights can be added to the trust agreement – the allocations must also be approved by the state water court – or withdrawn over time. Or, the trust can be revoked in its entirety. The county doesn’t lose its water rights, it simply donates them to boost river flows for whatever period of time it wants to, Ely said.

“We’re not giving it away,” he said. “We still own it.”

Pitkin County is the first to donate water rights to augment in-stream flows under new legislation approved by Colorado lawmakers.

A 2002 drought, when flows in the upper Roaring Fork dropped precipitously by late summer, drove home the need to protect in-stream flows. Between diversions to the Front Range and local diversions such as the Salvation Ditch, which begins east of town, the Fork nearly ran dry as it flowed through Aspen. The situation sparked discussion at the state level of the need for a way to allow water rights holders to donate water rights to boost river flows without jeopardizing ownership of those rights.

janet@aspentimes.com